In this series, Gary Paul Nabhan muses on important topics relating to his forthcoming book Food from the Radical Center: Healing Our Land in Communities. In this post, he writes about urban farms and arable land.
If you think that rural areas are the only places where communities are working on the restoration of food-producing habitats, look again: Many urban farmers and gardeners are endeavoring to "daylight" the arable land and potable water sources buried under the surface of most metropolitan areas. In fact, some of America's best arable lands and finest rivers run through the urban matrix. There are good reasons that we should not "throw in the towel" regarding the future of agriculture inside cities; for starters, some multi-ethnic urban communities currently suffer high rates of food insecurity, even those they include many "refugees from rural landscapes: who have excellent agricultural and culinary skills. And yet, changing demography and land uses as well as rising land costs make it harder to leverage expansive food production in cities. In 1950, just 64.7 percent of Americans lived in cities, but by 2015, that percentage had surpassed 80 percent. By 2030, it will likely approach 87 percent. We have become an urban species, living in places where it has become harder and harder to grow food. In fact, a third of the world's land surface-especially under abandoned fields, vacant lots, urban gardens, is no longer as nutrient-rich and productive and as it could be. Soil scientists who gathered in 2015 to advise the UN Food and Agricultural Organization were astonished at just how quickly soil macronutrients and microbes are disappearing from the world's soils and how quickly foods grown in those soils are losing their nutritional value. Fortunately, many urban activists are dedicated to making and distributing compost and mulch from urban green waste and replenish the soils in metro areas. (A shout-out to Compost Cats and Tank's Good Stuff for supplying soil amendments to metro Tucson through over six dozen outlets accessible to land restoration and urban gardening practitioners!) But their work does not stop with the soil. Free seed libraries in dozens of metro areas in the U.S. and Canada are helping urban residents in all income brackets re-diversify their food supplies, growing over two thousand foods crop varieties in metro Tucson alone!
My point is this: We urgently need to invest in the restoration of food-producing landscapes in our cities. Why? Not only because of the healthy foods they can produce, but also because of the way they reduce the "urban heat island effect" and slow climate change. The right to grow your own food is not a right restricted to rural dwellers; more than ever before urban Americans are reaffirming this basic human right!